Saturday, October 13, 2012


“What do the churches look like?” Yershi asked.

I peered at buildings through the carriage windows, trying to sort holy from common. The grey sky merged with soot from a thousand chimneys wet by the constant rain. Through the window came the odors of rotting thatch and horse manure and tanneries and coal dust and carrots and potatoes fresh from the ground.

“I don’t see a church,” I said.

“Every town has a church,” Yershi said.

Wattle and daub and muddy streets gave way to cobbles and buildings of stone.

There, on the other side of a small square, a church.

At least it had a cross on the door – a hard, iron cross bolted heavily to the thick door of oak or yew. There were no windows, only slits of darkness that presumably illuminated the interior. There were turrets in place of towers. Chains in place of the weighted ropes leading to a squat bell chamber – I could not call it a tower – atop the building.

“It’s more fortress than church,” I said.

“Long ago, the people of a village were slaughtered, raped, or burned alive when the marauders came in from the sea. They had no refuge, and the marauders smashed through the windows of their church, betimes throwing the dead or dying bodies of men against the lead and glass until it broke, so they could throw the women and children in more easily to burn them,” Yershi said.

“Thereafter, many villages and towns built churches that could offer a home to God and a refuge of strength from temporal death – though you should wonder why they feared to die if they loved their God so much,” he added.  Towns with churches of this nature hold their hands closed, hold their hearts deep within their cloaks and are wary of strangers. For good reason.”

“Should we move on, then?” I asked. “Find a town with a church open to the air and sun?”

“No,” Yershi said. “For though the rose windows and transepts are beautiful, these slender churches of living stone carry with them their own dangers. They beguile with their openness and charity, when therein lay ravens ready to pick bones clean.”

“You trust no one in the church?” I said. “I know many good Christians.”

Yershi laughed. “I do not mind Christians,” he said. “There are many who attend these church-fortresses who are friends to Yershi, as are many who attend the churches of open air and sunlight. But the churches tell the true story. I can follow the journey of Jesus to the cross while walking through a church and know that within these same walls, the condemned have walked to unjust deaths just as the faithful have walked with tears in their eyes to partake of the body of Christ. Each stone bears the echo of laughter or tears, hatred or love, sorrow or happiness – and oft a mixture of both, betimes one stronger than the other, like the smell of rain overpowering the smell of manure. The perceptive among the Christians and those they deign entrance to their edifices know of this dichotomy. Some stay within and strive to purge the stone and air of evil, to both great and minor effect. Some succumb to the evil. Some flee it and seek good elsewhere, abandoning their fellow Christians to the evils they recognize.”

“Nature recognized when this Jesus died. The heavens wept and the earth tore asunder,” he added, eyes closed as the horses clopped through the town. “Nature retains this sense of good or evil. Rock absorbs it like a sponge. Trees drink it like rainwater. And when rock is carved and trees are hewn, they go on recording, with invisible rings and invisible lichen and concretions, the good and evil that occur around them. Feel the rock, next time you enter a church, and you will know what kinds of Christians breathe the air around you.”

“Then breathe with them,” he added. “Or endeavor to bring in better air.”

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